The Many Health Benefits of Walking: The Science of Exercise

From a Lecture Series Taught by Professor Dean Hodgkins B. Sc.

Perhaps due to its proven simplicity and comparably easy access, walking for fitness is the most undervalued exercise format that exists. As a sweeping generalization, a lot of people view it as only being suitable as a route to fitness for the elderly or the very out of shape. How wrong this statement is – the health benefits of walking for exercise are bountiful at any age.

Image of walking for exercise - Health Benefits of Walking

Health Benefits of Walking: Quick Facts

On the health benefits of walking, both the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend walking as an exercise that can improve a number of health measures. Consider a few facts about the health befits of walking:

  • Race walkers can cover a mile in just over 5 minutes and a full marathon in around 3 hours.
  • Although over 40% of journeys in the U.S. are less than 2 miles, only 10% of these short trips are not made by car. These short trips offer a lot of opportunity for walking.
  • Walking a mile burns just as many calories as running, it just takes longer.
  • Walking has been proven to be an effective treatment for mild depression, reducing symptoms by 47%.
  • Walking can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by 58%.
  • A 2011 study by Erin Richman showed that brisk walking, at least 3 miles per hour for 3 hours or more a week, lowered the risk of prostate cancer progression.

Walking for fitness first gained popularity in the United States in the ’80s after Cardiologist James Rippe, a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, published details of how beneficial walking was for his patients recovering from a heart attack. Dr. Rippe wanted to know if these benefits could be extrapolated to the general population. With a team of researchers, he set up the Rockport Walking Program in Massachusetts.

Learn more: The Caloric Cost of Exercise

Walking for Fitness

In 1989 when the results were published, they caused quite a sensation in the mainstream media and led to a sudden boom in fitness walking across the nation. The program showed how walking can not only reduce important health parameters such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, but could also significantly aid weight loss.

Rippe’s study tested 500 people and found that 67% of the men and 90% of the women could reach their target heart rates by walking 4 to 4.5 miles per hour. Dr. Astrand found that during competitive walking, intensity reached approximately 85% of maximum heart rate. It was even higher uphill.

In another study, Michael Pollock at the University of Florida’s Center for Exercise Science found that middle-aged men who walked at the pace of 3.5 to 4.5 miles per hour for 40 minutes, 4 times per week had the same cardiovascular improvements as men the same age who jogged for 30 minutes 3 times a week. These walkers didn’t reach the same level of intensity as the runners, yet the increased duration and frequency of walking gave the walkers similar aerobic benefits.

Learn more: Motivation to Change Your Body Composition

Walking for Cardiovascular Disease

A British study by Adrianne Hardman looked at the effects on the health of previously sedentary women who walked regularly for 1 year. The women walked on average 2 1/2 hours per week at about 4 miles per hour. This added up to approximately 10 miles per week at around 70% of maximum heart rate.

The results of the study showed enhanced exercise tolerance, improved metabolic response to exercise and changes in the lipid profile of the blood, significant enough to predict a decreased risk of coronary artery disease in the walking group when compared to controls. The conclusion: Exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous to reduce cardiovascular risk factors. In other words, even strolling can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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One of the most comprehensive and renowned of these studies looked at the physical activity of 17,000 Harvard alumni across 20 years. Ralph Paffenbarger and his colleagues concluded that walking can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and reduce the risk of a heart attack by 28% or more.

Image of Heart abstract shape in the hand concept design.

Walking for Weight Loss

For a lot of us weight management or weight loss is the primary motivation. So how effective is walking in this domain? As with any activity, walking uses energy and therefore adding walking to your daily activity will use extra calories. So long as you don’t compensate by eating extra food, regular fitness walking will result in weight loss.

Learn more: Exercise for Fat Loss

As with any activity, walking uses energy and therefore adding walking to your daily activity will use extra calories. So long as you don’t compensate by eating extra food, regular fitness walking will result in weight loss.

Back to Dr. James Rippe—he estimated that brisk walking for 45 minutes per day, 4 times per week is sufficient to lose an amazing 18 pounds over a year even without dietary change.

Not surprisingly, if you walk up a steep incline and/or increase your pace you burn more calories. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, that’s 68 kilos, and you walk 3 and 1/2 miles per hour, that’s about 5.6

For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, that’s 68 kilos, and you walk 3.5 miles per hour, that’s about 5.6 kilometers per hour on flat ground, you’re going to burn about 300 calories an hour. However, if you walked up just a 4% incline, you’d burn 400 calories an hour. If you walked up a 10% incline, you’d burn a whopping 500 calories per hour. Now if you pick up the pace as well, say to just 4 miles per hour or 6.4 kilometers per hour on level ground, you’ll burn 350 calories in an hour. And that’s pretty good for just walking.

Race walking speeds of over 5 miles per hour will burn as many as 600 calories per hour. A 12-minute mile pace (around 5 miles per hour) can burn as many as 50% more calories than a 20-minute mile pace (which is 3 miles per hour). If you’re walking faster, you’ll not only burn more calories, but you’ll also spend less time each day exercising.

For example, walking 3 miles at a 12-minute mile pace 5 days per week will save you 2 hours per week over a person walking 3 miles at a 20-minute mile pace.

Image of Men's feet on weighing-machine

Walking for Osteoporosis

As a weight-bearing exercise, walking can also positively impact upon bone density.

Learn more: Exercise for Healthy Muscle Mass

Osteoporosis is a major health problem affecting around 25% of women and 8% of men in the UK and some 15 million people in the U.S. Osteoporosis reduces the density of bones and can be life-threatening since many older people die as a result of complications suffered from broken bones.

Several studies have reported that regular walking at moderate to brisk speeds increases bone density, even just walking for just 30 minutes a day.

Exercise can help reduce stress, particularly regular aerobic conditioning, which is precisely what walking is. A walking program has been shown to produce significant gains in self-image, confidence, feelings of well-being, and just reducing depression.

In one particular study, A. F. Kramer and his colleagues examined the effects of brisk walking on mildly obese sedentary women and found that walking markedly improved their psychological well-being.

So it’s easy to understand why Hippocrates is quoted as saying, “Walking is man’s best medicine.”

Image of highlighted leg bones of woman on treadmill

Walking For Injuries

Where walking really displays its value is in the area of injury, as exercise related injuries are shown to be much lower than for most other exercise formats.

During running for instance, the body has to absorb impacts equal to around 5 times your body weight, but walking causes impact stresses of only around 2–3 times your own weight. This means that walking is less likely to produce injuries and is consequently being recommended as a rehab activity for injured runners.

Studies have shown that increasing the intensity of a walking program, unlike other modes or exercise doesn’t carry any increased risk of injury.

During one 24-week study, not one of the 59 participants who walked 5 days a week at speeds of between 3 and 5 miles per hour sustained a walking-related injury that necessitated consulting with a physician.

Learn more: Small Steps—A Path to Big Benefits

Another 28-week study compared the injury rate of subjects running versus those doing fitness walking 4 days a week at 80% of their maximum heart rate for 40 minutes.

Preliminary results indicated that runners lost 11.1 days of training due to injury, but fitness walkers only lost an average of 1 and 1/2 days of training.

When it comes to exercise for seniors it can be argued that walking is the foremost option. Although of course every type of exercise has some risk associated with it. However, because walking is a low impact activity, the risk is lower compared to other forms of exercise such as running.

Image of Mature couple walking down dirt road

Take the Walking Challenge

Now for those of you who might consider walking too easy or maybe even too boring to adopt as a fitness technique, here is a challenge:

Pop on the treadmill next time you’re at the gym and  set the pace at 2 miles an hour. Every 30 seconds, increase the speed by 2 miles an hour.

Somewhere around 5 miles per hour you’ll naturally want to break into a jog because biomechanically it’s more efficient for your body to do this, but at this point don’t. Don’t run, just walk faster and see how it feels after about 5 minutes. You’ll then be convinced of the fitness credentials of walking.

Walking Tips

Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Exercising outdoors, perhaps even in extreme conditions, can dampen your enthusiasm to walk, so a few necessary precautions are needed in such conditions.
  • When temperatures are high, profuse sweating leads to considerable water loss. This reduces the amount of blood returning to the heart which could result in cardiovascular stress as indicated by very high heart rates. So on a hot day, you must take your water bottle with you.
  • The symptoms of heat exhaustion include weakness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, pale skin, profuse sweating, and a weak but rapid pulse. And the best treatment for this condition is replenishment of fluids and prolonged rest in a cool location.

    When humidity is high, say over about 60%, air temperature is up, the body’s ability to dissipate internal heat produced during exercise is impaired. So you may need to reduce your speed or continued walking during these extreme conditions because it could result in heat exhaustion or perhaps heat stroke
  • On warm days, wear light, loose clothing that will allow air to circulate around the body and thus improve the body’s ability to stay cool.
  • If the sun is strong, a hat or a visor may be advisable and smear of petroleum jelly across the forehead just above the eyebrows will prevent sweat from running into your eyes.
  • Petroleum jelly is also useful to lubricate the tops of the legs and under the arms to avoid chafing.
  • Layering clothing will keep walkers warm at the start of the exercise on a cool or cold day. As the body becomes warm, outer layers can be removed before the under layers become wet from perspiration. If your clothing becomes wet it should be changed as soon as possible.
  • Dressing advice for cold days is to start with a thin layer of thermal fabric that traps the air but releases moisture next to the skin, followed by a warm synthetic such as a sweatshirt or a fleece. All these layers should allow perspiration to escape so they need to be nonabsorbent and dry quickly.
  • There are many lightweight thermal garments on the market designed for walking, and whilst not essential they will help to ensure your comfort.
  • Gloves and a hat are advisable if the weather is very cold as a lot of heat is lost through the hands and head.
  • In wet weather you’ll chill very quickly unless you protect yourself from the rain but try to avoid plastic garments as these don’t allow perspiration to escape so you could end up getting chilled.
  • Windy conditions can significantly alter the intensity of exercise. For example, on a calm day, a 3 mile walk on level ground could be completed in an hour at a level intensity that feels somewhat hard. The same person however may find the same 3 mile walk very hard in windy conditions. So adjust your workouts accordingly if need be.
  • If possible avoid vigorous exercise in areas with high levels of air pollution. While environmental hazards in highly polluted areas can be reduced by walking in the early morning, late evening, or weekends, it might be better to exercise indoors.
  • Even in just moderate altitude your circulatory system might find it more difficult than usual to deliver as much oxygen to the exercising muscles as is required. Walkers who are accustomed to exercising at lower altitudes will need to decrease their exercise intensity and increase warm-up and cool-down periods at higher altitudes until they have acclimatized to these new conditions. It usually takes weeks to adapt to major changes in altitude.

So what are you waiting for? Even if you don’t fancy striding out solo, there are plenty of options to help you get started. It’s easy enough to locate a mall walking, race walking, American Volkssport Association, or Nordic Walking Club near to you so you can have company while you’re getting fit.

Now you may have heard the saying that good things come to those who wait, but there are so many health and fitness benefits that go with walking that good things actually come to those who walk.

And remember, walking might be cheap but life is priceless.

Keep reading:
Breaking Down The Barriers: Find Your Exercise Motivation
Understanding Arthritis — Types, Treatments, and Myths
Break the Cycle of Chronic Pain

From the Lecture Series: Physiology and Fitness
Taught by Professor Dean Hodgkins B, Sc.

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